Session 8: Infrastructure, History and Teaching in Astronomy

Title: Interdisciplinary Educational Opportunities in Astronomy
Author(s): M. Kafatos (Oral)

  Astronomy, always at the forefront of physical sciences, is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Advances in astronomy require support from theory, observations as well as computation and information technology. To respond to the needs of both undergraduate and graduate training, modern astronomy curricula must become broader than traditional programs. This is a challenge as educational institutions are, often, slow to respond to changes and faculty also have to be open to new techniques and broader horizons than they were exposed to when they were receiving their education. The external advisory committee which produced a report on the directions that Greek astronomy ought to be following in the 21 century made a number of recommendations related to education. In this presentation, I will build and expand on what was recommended then.
  Astronomy is a science driven largely by observations and university programs must rely on accessing and utilizing existing databases as well as exposing students to modern observational techniques. As such, Greek professors, researchers and students must increasingly be exposed to opportunities in research and education in observational and instrumental astronomy.  This can be achieved by access to modern European facilities such as ESO; the continued modernization of the Schinakas Observatory of the University of Crete; the creation of the new modern 2.3 m telescope facility with requisite instrumental infrastructure; and the availability of small telescopes, perhaps accessible via the World Wide Web (WWW) at various Greek facilities, such as the observatory in Cephallonia, the telescope at the University of Athens and at some other Greek universities, for the benefit of undergraduate and even high school education.
  Graduate programs in astronomy must take into account the close association of modern astronomical techniques with advances in information technology and new analytical methods. Modern astronomy increasingly relies on advances from fields such as statistics, database management systems, visualization and data mining for the analysis of large astronomical datasets.
  Advances in computer technology and information sciences in the last decade have been great and have greatly benefited astronomical research. Adequate computer facilities and IT infrastructure are not only necessary for advanced astronomical research but have become a necessity for meaningful graduate programs. We will examine some existing graduate programs that utilize computational sciences for providing graduate education in astronomy. It must be emphasized that such programs do, however, require adequate computational resources and infrastructure.
  The existence of the WWW and the internet afford Greek astronomers and educators opportunities which did not exist a few years ago and can provide the basis for low-cost but meaningful education at all levels.  Large amounts of astronomical, space sciences and remote sensing data are now freely available on the WWW and new programs such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will increase the amount of information available by many-fold. Because of the great expertise in both astronomy and computer science that resides in Greek universities, astronomical facilities in Greece could make substantial contributions to future “virtual observatories” contemplated in Europe and the U.S.  Access to such virtual observatory databases can yield many benefits to Greek astronomical educational programs and is relatively cheap to implement. The Astronomy 2000 report stated “Besides the obvious scientific returns, e.g. for multifrequency observations of celestial sources utilizing space‑based and ground‑based observations; high‑energy astrophysics, etc., just to mention a couple of examples; there are additional technical benefits: University students can become trained in the access and usage of diverse databases and in Internet technology. These benefits can extend beyond astronomy itself to forefront computer and computational fields such as "data mining", distributed databases and knowledge discovery and information”.  Clearly this is a very valid statement.
  New interdisciplinary fields that are strongly based in astronomy, such as astrobiology, can provide educational opportunities and be set up at relatively low-cost. They can serve not just astronomical training and education but provide the means to develop a general science teaching curriculum for the training of high school teachers. It can also provide the basis for a broad science course at Greek universities. Such a course would, however, require joint teaching by astronomers, geoscientists and biologists. We suspect it could be a very popular course.
  In conclusion, astronomy is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Although training still requires traditional, focused astronomy-based courses, new generations of Greek astronomers need to acquire innovative, broadened skills such as computer science, computational science, and modern data analysis methodologies. Also, modern astronomy and its associated space programs can utilize advances in technology and at the same time be a catalyst to advancing technological areas in Greek society such as telecommunications, computation and a variety of other applications. This will prove to be a challenge as well as a great opportunity.